The Grace of Christmas
We’re beginning a short series today for Christmas. I’m calling this series: The Christmas Story. What I want to do over three messages is to trace the Christmas story through the lens of a few of the characters that the Lord surrounded Jesus’ birth: Mary, Joseph, and the wise men.
Christmas is really a wonderful time of year. Some Christmases are better for folks than others. Some Christmases are more memorable than others. This year is going to be memorial to me because my son is going to come into the world.
Recently I discovered a baby picture of myself stuck under the Christmas tree like a present. Maybe I’ll do that to with my little one too—it might be cute.
Children can be a handful sometimes, but they’re really gifts. Sometimes they make you laugh, saying the darnedest things. One little boy was so honest and uninhibited. He’d received a Christmas present from his grandmother and he wrote on the thank you card: “Dear Grandmother, Thank you so much for the wonderful Christmas present. It was almost as good as the one I really wanted.”
Sometimes we think what we really want, what would really be helpful, what we really need in this world is a gazillion other things than the baby under the tree that Lord our God has given us. But we don’t. Everything that we really need is wrapped up in the person of Jesus.
If you have your Bibles, please turn to Matthew 1. We’re going to be looking at the genealogy of Jesus and alighting on Mary.
Matthew 1:1–18, ESV
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
I could be wrong, but I bet no one has ever read that genealogy to you before. Preacher typically avoid it not only because its boring, but also because those names are a bear to pronounce—I butchered half of them. Yet this list of names telling us some wonderful things: it tells us about three ways the grace of Christmas has come to us: through prophecy, sinners, and faithfulness.
Grace through Prophecy
A lot of people are interest in family trees these day. Ancestry.com was born 10 years ago and they’ve got over 1 Million users today. My aunt has been big into researching the “Bush” family line and she has traced it back to 15th-century Holland. She also traced my grandmother’s line to Scotland. I guess this means you’ve got an anal-retentive, kilt wearing preacher. I promise not to play the bagpipes for you this morning.
You need to know that Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind. He was trying to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the promised Messiah, and so one of the ways he sought to catch the attention of his Jewish readers was by dropping names. The Jews were very interested in genealogies, so the Christmas story begins with a peek at Jesus’ family tree.
In verse 1, Matthew summarizes what he’s doing: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). In other words, he’s saying, “Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic and Abrahamic promises.”
When Kellen is born in a couple of weeks he doesn’t get a choice about it. He doesn’t get to say: “I don’t want that mom and dad; I want to be born into Bill Gate’s family.” It was the same way with Jesus, God was the one who lined it up so that Jesus was as a direct descendant of both David and Abraham—few Jews could claim that tree. The significance: Jesus is the promised Messiah.
Now, let me give you three passages that lay out God’s promise to David.
“The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: ‘One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. If your sons keep my covenant and my testimonies that I shall teach them, their sons also forever shall sit on your throne.’” (Psa 132:11–12).
Someone from David’s line would sit eternally on his throne—that’s a long time.
Then, in the time of Jeremiah, when the Jews had been deported to Babylon, when there was no one from David’s line on there throne and, in fact, no throne, God reiterated his promise:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (Jer 23:5-6).
That’s a significant name. When we put it together with Isaiah 9, we begin to understand that we’re not talking about a normal king…
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isa 9:6–7).
Now, are you tracking with me? David has been promised that a divine king is going to sit eternal on his throne. Wow!
But that’s not the end of the story. Let’s link it now to Abraham. One of the promises that God gave Abraham was to bless all of the nations of the earth through him.
“In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Gen 22:18).
In other words, “Through you Abraham, I’m going to give a spiritual gift to the entire world,” says the Lord.
“Umm, Lord, how are you going to do that?” says Abraham.
“I’m going to do it through an offspring of yours.”
“Oh, okay, Lord. I like that plan.”
And the apostle Paul said, “Yeah, Jesus is that son of Abraham; moreover, Jesus’s name means ‘to deliver; to rescue.’” Hear what he said in Galatians:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:13–14).
There’s grace… by the zeal of God, salvation has gone out to the world through this son of Abraham who will sit on David’s throne forever. In Jesus, Abraham, the father of faith, is melded into King David, the man after God’s own heart. In Jesus, God saves humanity through faith, and rule humanity by faith. In Jesus, two great promises are fulfilled. That’s a grace through prophecy.
Not a bad beginning to the Christmas story, eh?
Grace through Sinners
There’s a second way that grace comes to us in Jesus’ genealogy. Behind every name on the list there is a story. There are poets, kings, servants, slaves, and even non-Jewish women on the list. It’s a varied list, but the all have one thing in common—they’re all sinners. God brings grace through sinners.
I want to tell you the story of the women who have made the list, because Jesus comes through them. There aren’t a lot of them. They’re special.
Near the beginning the woman, Tamar, is named. Do you know her story?
Well, she was the daughter-in-law of Judah, who was named the leader over the12 tribes of Israel by his father, Jacob. Tamar’s husband has died before she had had children. So, according to custom, Judah gave his second son, Onan, to her so that children’s could be raised up in his brother’s name an inherit his share. But Onan was devious and violated Jewish custom by making sure that Tamar never got pregnant. This sin was onerous to the Lord, so Onan also died.
So, Judah, tells Tamar to wait for his third son to come of age. But when he reaches marrying age Judah withholds him from Tamar, depriving her of an inheritance. Understand… in ancient Israel the ultimate responsibility in assuring offspring fell to the father-in-law.
So, having been denied Judah’s third son in order to honor her first husband, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and deceives her father-in-law. He lays with her, and she becomes pregnant.
When Tamar is found with child, Judah orders her death. That’s when she reveals that Judah himself is the father. Judah finally understands. He declares Tamar to be in the right, and himself to be wrong.
Now, Tamar was a Canaanite, not a Jew. And despite her sins of prostitution and incest, she get’s special mention in Jesus family tree. Why? Because inspire of Judah’s unfaithfulness to her, she was faithful to secure the his line—the line through his oldest son. And through this story of broken promises, deception, and incest the God’s own faithfulness is rules over unfaithfulness. He uses a heathen to keep Judah as a progenitor of the Messiah.
The next woman to appear in the genealogy is Rahab. And guess what? She’s another non-Jew, and she’s also a prostitute. When Joshua’s spires recon’ed Jericho, Rahab believed in the might and power of Israel’s God and helped them, hiding the spies in her home. And when Joshua’s army attacked the city, she hung a scarlet rope out of her window so the army would know where she was and spare her. The New Testament tell us that Rahab was saved by faith (Heb 11:31). She was a recipient to grace. Saved by the red rope… Perhaps we can see an allusion here to Jesus’ blood.
Ruth is the last woman named until we get to Mary, and she also wasn’t a Jew. Are you sensing a trend here. It’s as though the genealogy itself is saying, “Jesus isn’t just for the Jews; he’s for everyone.”
Ruth was from Moab. But when her husband and father-in-law died, she decided to remain with he mother-in-law, Naomi. She said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
So Naomi and Ruth went from Moab back to Israel, Naomi’s homeland. And there they were dirt poor, so poor that Ruth savaged for grain off the ground after the harvests pick the harvest. But she was noticed by the wealthy man, Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s. One day he called his foreman over, and said, “Woowee! Do you see that beautiful girl over there? Tell the men to drop handfuls of grain, so she’ll get plenty to eat.” And the rest is history, Ruth become the wife of Boaz. It’s all grace. In fact, do you know what she said when she realized that Boaz loved her, when she realized that he was leaving her handfuls of grain on purpose? She said, “Boaz, why have I found grace in your eyes?”
Ruth, Rahab, Tamar… these ladies are on the list because they’re representatives of grace. They’re megaphones saying, “It’s all about grace, folks!” God’s grace is being brought to you through sinners. These ladies are telling us, “Grace isn’t something you do, it’s something you receive—just like we did.”
There’s one more woman I want to tell you about.
Grace through Faithfulness
There was a pattern with the women in the genealogy, it went: “Perez and Zerah by Tamar,” “Salmon … by Rahab,” and “Obed by Ruth,” but when we get to the last woman the pattern is broken. It reads: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matt 1:16). It’s not “Joseph father of Jesus by Mary.” Because Joseph had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. Mary is prominent one. Why? The virgin with birth is on display. And it’s reiterated in verse 18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
The virgin birth is significant because it’s communicates that the grace given to us through Jesus comes to us, not by human will, but wholly by the will of God. Jesus is 100 percent a gift of divine grace. Something new was breaking into the world: God the father of Jesus by Mary. Jesus, son of God—fully divine—born by Mary—fully man.
God entered his own creation in the same way you and I enter creation: born as a babe, empty of everything, possessing nothing. And in doing that, God, through his son Jesus, was identifying with humanity.
Years ago I was feeling really low. I was in Hong Kong at the time, and they have my favorite restaurant there, so I went and sat in McDonald’s and stared out the window at a great mountain. Silently I spoke, “Lord, I’m hurting here. You said you love me, but I’m not feeling the reality of that love right now.”
And the thought came back to me: “You’re not feeling it now, and that’s okay. But come, let us reason together as you eat that Big Mac.”
Then a question came to my mind: If God loved his world, how would he really show it? “Well,” I thought, “I love my daughter, and how do I show it? I often want to give her a big bear hug. In fact, hug her so tightly that I enter into her, pass through her.”
Then another thought came as a reply, “That’s what you would like to do, eh? Funny, for that’s what I actually did. Do you want to feel my love, Dan? Then, looking at my Son and keep looking. You emotions will catch up to you thoughts soon enough.”
The Christmas story is about a whopper of bear hug. That’s the amazing miracle of Christmas!
And it amazed Mary too. The angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Ya know, dear, this is gonna happen. God’s gonna pour his grace upon you. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And she’s amazed, “How will this be, since I am a virgin” (Luke 1:31-34).
God, Mary, the Spirit of God. Not the will of man, but the will of God.
Do you know Mary’s response? She didn’t pull a Moses, she didn’t say, “Oh, not me, you’ve got the wrong number. Call someone else, Lord.” Like the other ladies in Jesus’ genealogy Mary, full of faith, says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). That’s faithfulness!
God didn’t choose her because she was good or well placed in society. God chose her in grace. And she was faithful, which means she did nothing. She was utterly passive. But in her passivity she trusted the Lord. “I may be ostracized as a harlot like Tamar and Rahab, but I’m holding on to the promises like they did. I don’t have the foggiest clue where this road is headed, but I’m trusting the God of Abraham, like Ruth.”
And ya know what, that’s exactly what Jesus praised her for too. Once when Jesus was teaching a woman raised her voice and shouted: “‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 11:27–28). He wasn’t dissing Mary. He was pointing to her greatest quality, which wasn’t her womb. Here greatest quality was her faithfulness. Mary was completely available to God—she trusted! She hung on to the word of the Lord like a security blanket.
Some of you have experienced really difficulties. Some of you haven’t, not yet—but don’t worry if you walk this earth long enough difficulties will come. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. When difficulties come, when you can’t make head or tails out of what you are experiencing, when nothing is reasonable or meaningful, remember the grace of Christmas.
1665 and 1666 were two bad years for England. In 1665 the Black Plague hit; then in 1666 four-fifths London burned to the ground. One Englishman wrote in his diary, “All around us is death and despair; I don’t think we’ll ever be able to recover.” But Thomas Ken seeing the same scene remembered the grace of God and wrote something very different. He wrote:
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
And you know what? Mary sang too. The Gospel of Luke records her song:
“My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord, my soul is full of joy in God my Savior. … The one who can do all things has done great things for me—oh, holy is his Name! Truly, his mercy rests on those who fear him in every generation. … He has satisfied the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands. Yes, he has helped Israel, his child: he has remembered the mercy that he promised to our forefathers, to Abraham and his sons for evermore!” (Luke 1:54-55, Phillips).
I hear God saying through Jesus’ family tree: “Don’t fear, I’m working all things for good. Hold on tight, dear Heart, like the women through whom I sent you my gift of grace, Jesus, to show you how much I love you.” Amen.